Think shaving is a modern woman’s problem? Think again. Copper razors have been found that date back to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, which means humans have been shaving since before Biblical times.
The Ancient Egyptians trimmed and removed pubic hair with pumice stones and flints, and even invented “sugaring”—a natural hair removal process performed with hot sugar and lemon juice. Sugar isn’t the only thing the ancients used to get rid of hair; they also manufactured their own high-alkaline depilatory solutions, like the “rhusma” paste used as long as 3,000 years ago in Turkey. Recipes for hair depilatories appear in medical cookbooks throughout the 12-18th centuries, such as one from the medieval women’s medicine book, the Trotula, that recommends boiling arsenic with quicklime and leaving it on the skin for just long enough that the flesh doesn’t burn off (eek!).
The Ancient Greeks revered youthful, immortal bodies, so they painted and sculpted women without pubic hair to indicate their beauty. Some women followed this beauty standard themselves, though it’s unclear if this practice was restricted to the upper class. In any case, at least some Greek courtesans plucked their pubic hair to extinction, or even burned it off. Upper class Roman women followed the hairless pubic trend, with some men even joining in on hair removal.
After the fall of Rome, the pendulum swung the other way. While some women in the Middle Ages removed their pubic hair to please their husbands, most women who removed their pubic hair did so to remove or prevent pubic lice. In fact, 1450 marks the first merkin in recorded history—a pubic wig invented to cover a shaved mons. Women used merkins to conceal their lice-driven hair removal, or sometimes even an STD. For centuries, merkins were in and Brazilians were unheard of—though artistic depictions of women throughout the Western world remained pube-free, in keeping with the Ancient Greek tradition.
The next hair removal revolution would not come until 1915, when Gillette released the first women’s razors. At the time, advertisements and culture fixated on hairless armpits for women, as sleeveless dresses became socially acceptable for the first time. One 1915 ad for a depilatory powder in Harper’s Bazaar reads “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”
Women’s hair became even more objectionable during WWII, when a nylon shortage forced women to go bare-legged, leading to more and more shaved legs. Hair removal moved further up the legs when the bikini was first sold commercially in 1946, inventing the need for a smooth “bikini line”. Sarah Hildebrandt writes in her book The EmBodyment of American Culture, “the more clothes women were ‘allowed’ (or expected) to remove, the more hair they were also expected to remove.” As fashion raised hemlines, body hair removal skyrocketed. This continued into the 1960s, with the miniskirts of the mod movement encouraging hairless thighs in addition to hairless armpits, calves, and bikini lines.
The Women’s Movement and free love attitude of the 1970’s offered a revolt to hair removal. Untrimmed bushes became as mainstream as bell bottoms. Even porn stars rocked the full bush until 1974, when the first hairless vagina was shown in Hustler. Though the rest of the porn world soon followed suit, American culture didn’t embrace the Brazilian until the late ‘90s.
The hairless revolution was ushered in by three sisters from Brazil who opened their famous J. Salon in New York in 1987, offering Brazilian waxes. The trend was niche throughout the ‘90s until celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Campbell revealed that they were entirely bare down there. In 2000, when Sex and the City aired their infamous “Brazilian” episode, the beauty trend hit full mainstream.
A 2014 Cosmopolitan poll of their readers found that 70% opted for Brazilian waxes, but once again, the times are changing. Pubic hair has been making a recent comeback, with the New York Times noticing a trend toward fuller bush in a 2013 story and American Apparel sporting be-merkined mannequins in 2014. Vogue declared in 2018 that “The Full Bush Is the New Brazilian”, and new products for pubic hair care have found a foothold in the beauty market.
Pubic hair removal standards are part of larger beauty trends that fluctuate from decade to decade—even from year to year. Hairy, hair-less, or somewhere in between—do what makes you feel happy and comfortable in your own body, and remember that expectations for pubic hair removal are like Hammer pants and shoulder pads: they’re just trends.
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